Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ode to dawn

…Or, How I woke up much too early but didn’t mind a bit.

At 4.37am the first bird calls, a sweet, melodious tweeting that I find hard to resent just because it’s an ungodly hour. About a minute and a half later another call starts up, and then very quickly the valley is echoing with birdcalls, each with its own pace and rhythm and tune, the whole glorious symphony loud enough to wake the dead.

I should want to wring each one of their little tweeting necks, because I’ve only slept four and a half hours. At home in Delhi, a similar but less melodious solo followed by an ear-splitting chorus often wakes me, and even though it’s typically later, I lie in bed thinking purely murderous thoughts about our little feathered friends. Here, instead, I jump out of bed with a smile on my face and turn on the electric kettle to make a cup of tea.

At 4.45am I’m outside, appalled by how much dawn I’ve already missed. There’s a violet flush over the hillsides. The summer solstice is just passed; these days are long and hot even at seven thousand feet, but at the moment it’s cool enough for a shawl. The world looks newly made, and not just because you’ve processed most of last night’s wine. It’s mysterious and cool and a little damp, shrouded in pre-sunrise pearl. The forest is curled up and asleep, folds and ridges and spurs looking for all the world like enormous mounds of broccoli.

Except for the birds, and the rustling leaves, it’s perfectly quiet. What I keep mistaking for a car coming down the road is the sound of the wind in the deodars—a strong, rushing river-like sound. I love being wrong.

At 5.15 the mist nestled in the valleys begins to rise, and resolves itself into a single white streak at the bottom of the blue silhouettes of the Kumaon ranges. Sometime around 5.30 a tiny pomegranate bump appears, but in the wrong spot: it’s coming out of the clouds above the ranges, starting much too high. It rises and swells into a cool pink ball and rapidly becomes a hot pink ball becomes a fierce orange ball becomes the sun. It takes me a moment to remember that although it’s too cloudy to see them, the blue ranges are backed by huge Himalayan snowcaps, invisible except for the fact that the sun has to clear them.

Foliage crackles lightly on the hillside beneath the stone terrace, and I find myself looking around for the yellow spotted line of a leopard’s back until I realise that it’s just leaves crackling under the weight of bees, twigs crackling under the weight of birds. I watch one sharp-beaked, crested bird catch an insect and demolish it nervously while the poor thing kicks and flutters and, I imagine, emits little insect death rattles. Not another soul is up. It’s just me, the mountains, and the ruthless business of nature trying to find breakfast. Who needs toast when you can peck live worms to death?

A pink flush in the sky, aka rosy-fingered dawn, starts to run through a brief, enchanted palette, like an aria in the sky. I don’t blink, so that I don’t miss any of this rapid-fire action that ends much too soon. The sun breaches cloud and mist and quickly turns to white-hot and suddenly the whole thing begins to look much more like your regular sun, heat and all, and the shawl is suddenly redundant, and I’m suddenly hit by the weight of all the hours I haven’t slept.

The magical part is over; I’ve the seen the world safely on its way to today. Time to go back to sleep.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Apology to the Queen

I have visited the mountains of Himachal Pradesh several times over the last few years. My destination has usually been the apple orchard country of Kotgarh district, which is tucked away behind a hairpin bend on the road to Narkanda, amid some of the most beautiful spruce forest anywhere in the world. Getting to Kotgarh involves taking the train to Kalka, the railhead at the foot of the hills, and then driving for six hours.

Shimla is at the halfway point of the car ride, and I’ve always taken a dim view of it. In the clear light of day it’s a frightful eyesore, seeping down the hillside like a concrete abscess, From afar, and from the confines of a vehicle, it looks like the sort of joint you should either bypass, or speed through as fast as its monstrous traffic jams will allow; and so all I’ve even done in the Queen of the Hills is pause to pee on it, before fleeing onward. But this fill it-flush it-forget it attitude came to an end last weekend, when I went up to visit a friend who lives there.

It’s on foot that the place comes into its own. I discovered this by virtue of not having my own car, and also by virtue of being in Chhota Shimla, which is a good fifteen- or twenty-minute walk from the shop-lined Mall where one buys groceries.
The house I stayed in was bewitching. The flooring planks filled the rooms with the smell of old wood; the kitchen had the sort of sooty corners that only tough, busy, unfussy people can create and tolerate; enormous windows framed a view of cedar forests; a fireplace had, over the years, become a storage niche.

We would leave this cosy spot to walk for hours every day, including to the Mall, where you will find everyone walking up and down of an evening, because apparently they don’t get enough walking up and down the vertiginous levels of town the rest of the day. On the Mall we browsed identical sweater shops and climbed up to the bilious yellow church at the foot of which people were dancing the nati. We ate American-sized portions of rather good lasagna and pork chops at Combemere (named after the Lord), and had excellent idlis and sambhar with the world’s worst coffee at India Coffee House, and bought hard-boiled eggs from the many, many hard-boiled egg sellers on the street. If you’re going into the hard-boiled egg selling business, Shimla is where it’s at.

Salted hard-boiled eggs, wine, bread, cheese and Nutella consumed over many games of backgammon and chess is hard to beat, especially if a light rain is falling outside. And when it’s clear, you walk out into the forests. If you get tired of the lovely shady forest road that goes up to the ridge, just dive into the trees in another direction—for instance you can take a bus or taxi up to Chharabra, and walk down through fragrant pine and spruce forest to Mashobra, grab a cup of tea at the market, and walk some more to install yourself on a soft patch of forest grass and have a picnic of paranthas, pickle and beer.

The company and the relief from scorching weather in Delhi certainly helped, but it wasn’t just that. I really find myself fond of Shimla’s streets, the phlegmatic gait of its population, and the fact that there might be what feels like a two-thousand-foot altitude difference between the bus stand and your house. Maybe I’m feeling so fond because I was only there for a brief holiday rather than a lifetime, but so what? I take back all the nasty things I’ve thought about it in the past.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The devil’s sweatshop

You know that story about the fisherman and the entrepreneur? The bright young MBA comes upon a fisherman on the beach, drowsing and reading in the shade of a coconut tree, beside his rod and a catch bucket in which there are two measly fish. What a waste of time and opportunity, he thinks, and decides to help the guy out.

“You’re never going to get anywhere like that,” he says to the fisherman. “Why don’t you work harder?”

“Why?” asks the fisherman.

“If you caught more fish to sell, you could save some money,” explains the MBA.

“And then?” says the fisherman.

“Then you could buy a second boat, and hire an assistant.”

“And then?”

“Then, if you continued to work hard, you’d catch double the fish.”

“And then?”

“Then if you keep working hard, you could save more money to buy even more boats and hire even more people. It’s called growing your business.”

“And then?”

“Then you could work hard to catch even more fish to sell, so you could save even more money!” says the MBA irritably, wondering whether this guy even has a brain.

“And then?”

“And then you’d be made—you could retire, go live in some nice place and relax, eat great food, and do nothing much!”

“Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?” asks the fisherman.

Pico Iyer has a lovely essay called ‘The Joy of Less’ in the New York Times (June 10, 2009). It’s on the much-pared down life he lives in Japan following a high-octane career in journalism. “I have no bicycle, no car, no television I can understand, no media — and the days seem to stretch into eternities, and I can’t think of a single thing I lack”, he writes; “[…] at some point, I decided that, for me at least, happiness arose out of all I didn’t want or need, not all I did.” He concludes that “happiness, like peace or passion, comes most freely when it isn’t pursued” and that “If you’re the kind of person who prefers freedom to security, who feels more comfortable in a small room than a large one and who finds that happiness comes from matching your wants to your needs, then running to stand still isn’t where your joy lies.”

The simple life is something that the world discovered around the time that everyone started to have to clean out their offices. Before the Great Crash of 2008 it just wasn’t done to sit around enjoying your life, choosing minimum rations of work and money for the pleasure of spending your time smelling the daisies. If you weren’t busy—really busy, so busy it gave you ulcers and left you no time to do anything other than work—then baby, you were a waste of space.

Now that things have gotten so pervasively hairy in the world of business that there are few problem-free places left to migrate to, suddenly everyone is going on about how passé all that is, and how they would really much rather have the time with their kids—though I suspect that as soon as the economy regains a bit of colour in its cheeks, everyone will dive straight back into researching which new phone they can now afford to replace their perfectly good phone that works fine.

Meanwhile, as far as I’m concerned, the more of us hanging about not consuming too much, the better for the planet—even if you don’t buy the argument that it could even be good for your soul.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Old wine, new bottle

Last weekend my mother and I took my niece up to Sitla Estate in Kumaon. The overnight Ranikhet Express train to Kathgodam leaves from Old Delhi Railway Station, which, for those of you who haven’t been in a while, is still monstrously crowded and smelly. Four-year-old Tara lives in Boston, where the last germ was hacked to death in the middle of the last century (though now with swine flu all bets are off), so the station was a bit of a shock to her.

“This is not good!” she shouted as I dragged her up the stairs holding her hand in a death grip. I couldn’t actually see her in a sea of people and swinging luggage. It’s not good, I agreed, but we’ll soon be in our compartment. I thought she followed up with ‘Ooo!’ but it turned out she was yelling “My shoe!” I recovered it halfway down the staircase. Her little head was buffeted this way and that, and while she bravely soldiered on without complaint, she was pretty shell-shocked by the time we picked our way through the human wreckage on the platform to wait for our train.

“Is it morning, afternoon or night?” she asked, wiping her brow. I thought she was messing with me. I pointed at the sky and asked her what she thought. “That’s not the sky, we have to go outside to see the sky,” she said. I realised that train stations in Boston are probably enclosed. Her face was wonderstruck at the idea of an open-air station, and grew even more so when she saw the little sink and the ladder to the upper bunk in our first class coupe.

This was to be not only her first experience with Indian Railways but also her first trip without either her mother or her father, and I was worried that she might get cranky, but when I told her it was time to sleep, she ground her fists vigorously against her eyes saying that this was the way to get sleepy right away, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and immediately fell asleep.

She was delighted with the “curly streets” that wound through the mountains the next morning; with the “hairy hills”; with the bunnies in the hutch; with the pancakes and honey breakfast that our host Vikram gave her; and most of all with Vikram himself, who had an answer to anything she came up with. One evening at dinner she declared that she couldn’t eat her pasta because it was sick. Sick? we asked. It’s not feeling well at all, she said firmly. My mother and I just stared at her, but she had met her match in Vikram, who nodded gravely, marched off and returned with a plastic syringe, with which he administered a few injections to the ailing pasta. Now that it was all better could she eat, he asked? “Yeah!” she shouted, outmanoeuvred, and gobbled the lot.

She spent a lot of time on imaginary phone calls, telling imaginary people that Sitla was “the most beautifulest place in the world” with “giantic mountains”, and that she was “never ever ever leaving”. Her long-standing fear of dogs disappeared around the estate’s two beautiful German shepherds. She made fast friends with a wriggly five-year-old fellow guest, and the two of them spent hours on end discussing Sita and Ravana, and playing Ludo and Snakes & Ladders without any dice, as well as a version of chess in which you impale a hollow plastic chessman on all of your digits and then make scary claws at each other.

She was, in other words, happy as a clam. I realised that I just wanted her to love it the way I do, and was thrilled that she did. I can’t say what would have happened if it had all gone the other way.

I might have had to throw her off a giantic hillside.